Kids need a TON of movement. Some of that movement should be play, some should be using their upper body to swing and hang, and a lot of it should be walking. This is important to understand because we’ve gotten used to putting all exercise into one bucket and calling it good, but it doesn’t work like that.
The effects created by movement are very similar to the effects created by eating or ingesting supplements or pharmaceuticals. Your body responds very specifically to the various forces created by movement. There are small chemical changes that are created by the different angles and bone positions we use. There are mechanoreceptors in the bone that can only feel certain styles of movement. There are body benefits that can only be obtained through walking. We humans used to walk 800-900 miles per year with our families. That’s 17,000 minutes of annual travel time using the old hooves. These days, we log these miles online.
When it comes to children, walking is essential to developing the human body. Each type of exercise has its benefits, but the mechanoreceptors throughout the human form require walking (and a lot of it) to fully develop all the systems. Walking is not an option. It’s a requirement. For you, and your kids.
So, what do you do, then, when you don’t have time to walk with your child? Or your kid won’t walk? Or your kid will walk, but only in circles? Or for five minutes? Or for five minutes in circles?
I’m glad you asked!
Here’s what usually happens: You want to start walking. You head out. You walk for about 10 minutes and the kid is tired and doesn’t want to walk anymore. Then they want to be held. So you hold them.
This is all fine and great, but let’s imagine this scenario:
You want to learn how to run a 5K. You head out, running full blast. You run for 7.2 minutes. You are tired. You stop, and call your best friend to come and pick you up in the car. They do. The end.
These are the exact same scenario, physiologically. Kids do not have a natural psychological resistance to walking. They have a learned resistance to walking. Then, when you as a parent are ready to start doing family walks, you are disappointed when the child won’t walk more than a few minutes without having a little meltdown or something.
Please understand, the child is not having a mental episode. They are fatigued. Their body has reached it’s limit in terms of having the strength and endurance to continue. So now the real question is, how can I create a situation where my child can develop walking endurance?
If you’re all excited about heading out for a 30-minute walking session because YOU need the movement, that’s all great, but you’re basically setting the kid (and yourself) up for failure. Don’t use your walking time for the child’s necessary training session. The kid needs his own walk, that allows him to successfully complete the entire walk on his own two legs. Say “Hey Sam! It’s time for your walk! Let’s go!”
1. Do this 2-3 times a day.
2. Walk only about 7-10 minutes, tops. Slightly more if it’s easy, slightly less if they are unable.
3. Increase the length of your walk, by 2-3 minutes (or about 10%) every week.
4. Be diligent. If you miss a week, then the endurance is lost. Children are rapidly increasing in mass. Which means that, while they aren't walking, they are getting heavier. Which means that, they are quickly becoming too heavy for their endurance. Which means that you have to stay on top of this walking thing, like, every day.
Something else to consider is a child’s sense of time. Time is exaggerated in a child’s mind. Car trips take foooorreever. I used to think that a popular beach where I grew up was a few hours from my house. Turns out that, once I got my own driver’s license, it was 17 miles away. Oh. Really? It seemed farther than that.
To keep children from zoning out to cope with this huge walk you’re going to make them go on that takes fooooorrrever, pick a destination. Say, “Hey Samantha! We need to walk to the mailbox. Or the post office. Or the grocery store!” Make sure that this mileage is doable for them (see step #1), and then let them know that there is purpose to their walking. There is a fixed end of their walk.
The younger the child, the easier it is to fill them with the wonder (and oxygen and bone density) that comes from walking. Older children typically have attitudes that match their parents’ when it comes to walking.
"It’s too difficult, or it’s too far, or it’s too cold, or too long..."
These aren’t their natural opinions, but your opinions that they’ve learned to adopt. If this is the case in your home, first model the behavior you’d like to see in your children. And then, after you’ve been a good little walker for some time, begin to insist the entire family walk -- first short walks and then longer as the bodies adapt for better endurance.
If you’re thinking “Insisting on something with my children won’t work!” please consider the must-dos in your home. Do they have to do their homework? Do they have to be kind to others? Why wouldn't "have enough endurance to move your skeleton around without some sort of contraption" be on the list of your family rules?
The “brushing the teeth rule” is in most homes. Walking daily is actually more important to health than brushing your teeth, and brushing your teeth is pretty gosh darned important. Your kids do it, though, because for some reason, the dental committee really made a compelling argument that people subscribe to, so you brush your teeth at least once a day.
Preventive dental care is easy and free. Tooth decay is expensive and kind of scary for most people, so many (hundreds of millions) do the work. You probably taught your kids to brush, but before you did, YOU were brushing daily, which is how they really knew it was important.
I didn’t even try to get Finn to brush his teeth in this picture, he just wanted to emulate me.
A daily walk is the most simple and inexpensive thing you can do for your whole body wellness. I cannot tell you how expensive (and scary) your health will become if you don’t do this for your children (and yourself) now.
How about I give you a sticker after each walk? Would that work?
Don’t become frustrated when kids get tired, just calibrate the time on their walk next time, which hopefully is later that same day. Allow children to explore, but continue moving forward at a rate that matches theirs.
Children pay more attention to what other children are doing, more so than to what their parents are doing. As you start taking longer walks, see if there is a friend who has a slightly older child (maybe even 3 or 4 of them!) who wants to walk with you. In more natural times, there were many parents with many children of varying ages (not just siblings) walking together. Do your best to recreate that. Children are trying to learn what the slightly older child is doing and make the computer-brain program “this is what kids do, they walk.” Help create a model that a child can follow naturally.
Clothing and weather: If you live in a place that requires 25 minutes of clothes-putting-on that causes a tantrum from you-know-who and major perspiration from the clothes-putter-on-er, consider short, less bundled walks around the outside of the house. Maybe the full suit is not required, but a good hat, gloves, vest, socks, and speed. Speed, as in walking fast, not the drug.